If you have ever suffered from depression you will know how very unhelpful it is to be told to ‘just cheer up’, or ‘snap out of it’. In the following series of articles I will share with you the most informative and useful information I have discovered in my quest to understand and help, those that are suffering from this debilitating condition.
Much of the information in these articles is sourced from the website http://www.clinical-depression.co.uk. If you are feeling depressed or you know someone that is, I strongly advise you to visit the site yourself and read The Depression Learning Pathway, written by Roger Elliott and Mark Tyrell, in its entirety, and share it with anyone you think it will help.
Depression is a greatly misunderstood condition, with much conflicting advice available from any number of well meaning friends, therapists and members of the medical profession. It can affect anyone, at any age and from any background. In October 2012 the World Health Organisation reported that globally more than 350 million people suffer from depression with it being the leading cause of disability worldwide. Depression among the young is rising with the National Institute of Mental Health reporting that about 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18.
These figures rise every year, with the greatest growth rate affecting teenagers, if figures continue to rise at this rate it will be the second most disabling condition in the world by 2020, second only to heart disease.
Causes of depression
Popular opinion seems to point at the root cause of depression being some combination of the following: a chemical imbalance in the brain, a certain style of thinking or/and the result of a negative experience.
Whilst these three factors do have their part to play there are some further considerations to make. It is true that depression causes physical symptoms however it is not actually a disease. Low serotonin levels are a result, not a cause of depression. Depression can feel like a physical disease because it causes real physical symptoms such as exhaustion, pain and changes in appetite.
Thinking styles do have a major part to play in depression, however many people who would be considered to be pessimistic are not depressed. Many ‘glass half empty’ people seem to rather enjoy their ‘Victor Meldrew-esk’ behaviour and seem to take pleasure from choosing to see the negative in situations.
Many people suffer trauma or experience sadness during the course of their life. Why is it then, that some become depressed and others who have been through the same experience seem to cope fairly well? The tool with which the medical profession determine whether you are depressed actually states that clinical depression cannot be diagnosed if the symptoms that you are displaying can be attributed to bereavement, as grieving is a natural response.
Is depression, therefore, simply a natural response that happens at an unnatural time?
This would seem to be true – if it were unnatural to the human body we would have to use some external substance to bring it about. So why is depression thought to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and why is the most common treatment for depression the administration of drugs that aim to address this imbalance? If the root cause was due to a chemical imbalance why is it that depression has increased rapidly over the last 50 years?
Depression can be linked to bad experiences, however the experience does not cause it. The link between the life event and how you feel about it depends upon how you relate to the event, meaning that the way the event affects you will be dependent upon how you respond and make sense of it.
This is not to say that you have any conscious control over how you relate to the circumstances in your life, you are not to blame because you have become depressed. Understanding is the key. Understanding the link and recognising your thinking style can help you to make sense of why you have become depressed and stuck in a cycle of depression that can cause a downward spiral that fuels the depression.
People born after 1945 experience 10 times more depression than those born before that date, therefore the root cause of depression cannot be a chemical imbalance because human genes do not change that fast. The work of James Le Fanu in his book The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine elaborates upon this. His study shows that most depression is non-biological, although it does have biological effects.
So, if depression is not a disease caused by a chemical imbalance, what is it caused by?
Mel Schwartz in his blog in Psychology Today argues that most depression is situational. He says that the symptoms of depression are often due to depressing circumstances, not disease. He feels that depression is symptomatic of feeling isolated and cut off.
Certainly over the past 70 years society has changed. We tend not to live in extended family relationships and traditional communities have dispersed. Many believe that this is the reason that depression is on the increase
We have, as a society, placed greater importance on material wealth at the expense of the wealth found within nourishing relationships. Schwartz claims that in our drive to live the good life we typically isolate ourselves from relationships that might nourish us and that intimate and loving relations have become marginalized.
Much of this need to focus externally is fueled by the prevalence of news media, bombarding us with how we ‘should’ be, look, what we ‘should’ have and how we ‘ought’ to be living our lives. We focus on ‘the self’, worrying about how we appear to the outside world rather than nourishing ourselves internally.
With this lack of internal validation life loses meaning, we set unattainable goals and constantly feel like a failure as we continue to fall short of them. Constant negative introspection and isolation causes serotonin levels in our blood to drop, however once the depression lifts these chemical imbalances return to normal.
In the next article we will look further into the causes of depression and examine the link between stress, and depression.